trash vortex To explore strange new worlds; to boldly go into the plastic vortex A group of conservationists and scientists are planning a research trip to the world’s largest rubbish pile; the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Also known as the Eastern Garbage Patch, the Pacific Trash Vortex, or simply the Great Plastic Vortex; this gyre of marine litter has been gradually building over the last 60 years but we still know very little of this man-made monstrosity.

The expedition, headed by Hong Kong based entrepreneur and conservationist Doug Woodring, hopes to learn more about the nature of the vortex and investigate if it is possible to fish out the debris without causing even more harm.

It will take many years to understand and fix the problem,” says Jim Dufour, a senior engineer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, who is advising the trip.

According to Dufour, research expeditions like this one are of imperative importance since establishing the extent of the problem is vital for the future health of the oceans.

It [the expedition] will be the first scientific endeavour studying sea surface pollutants, impact to organisms at intermediate depths, bottom sediments, and the impacts to organisms caused by the leaching of chemical constituents in discarded plastic,” he says.

The research crew, which will pass through the gyre twice on their 50-day journey from San Francisco to Hawaii and back, are using a 150-foot-tall (45-metre-tall) ship – the Kaisei, which is Japanese for Ocean Planet. They will also be accompanied by a fishing trawler responsible for testing various methods of catching the garbage without causing too much harm to marine life.

You have to have netting that is small enough to catch a lot but big enough to let plankton go through it,” Woodring explains.

Last year, building contractor and scuba dive instructor Richard Owen formed the Environmental Cleanup Coalition (ECC) to address the issue of the pollution of the North Pacific. A plan designed by the coalition suggests modifying a fleet of ships to clear the area of debris and form a restoration and recycling laboratory called Gyre Island.

Hopefully, the garbage can not only be fished up but also recycled or used to create fuel, but a long term solution must naturally involve preventing the garbage from ending up there in the first place.

The real fix is back on land. We need to provide the means, globally, to care for our disposable waste,” says Dufour.

Despite being sponsored by the water company Brita and backed by the United Nations Environment Programme, the expedition is still looking for more funding to meet its two million US dollar budget. Since the enormous trash pile is located in international waters, no single government feels responsible for cleaning it up or funding research. Another problem is lack of awareness; since very few people ever even come close to this remote part of the ocean it is difficult to make the problem a high priority issue. A documentary will be filmed during the expedition in hope of making the public more aware of where the world’s largest garbage dump is actually located.

What is the Eastern Garbage Patch?

According to data from the United Nations Environment Programme, our oceans contain roughly 13,000 pieces of plastic litter per square kilometre of sea. However, this trash is not evenly spread throughout the marine environment – spiralling ocean currents located in five different parts of the world are continuously sucking in vast amounts of litter and trapping it there. Of these five different gyres, the most littered one is located in the North Pacific – the Eastern Garbage Patch.

North Pacific Gyre World Map To explore strange new worlds; to boldly go into the plastic vortex
The five major oceanic gyres.

The existence of the Eastern Garbage Patch was first predicted in a 1988 paper published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the United States. NOAA based their prediction on data obtained from Alaskan research carried out in the mid 1980s; research which unveiled high concentrations of marine debris accumulating in regions governed by particular patterns of ocean currents. Using information from the Sea of Japan, the researchers postulated that trash accumulations would occur in other similar parts of the Pacific Ocean where prevailing currents were favourable to the formation of comparatively stable bodies of water. They specifically indicated the North Pacific Gyre.

California-based sea captain and ocean researcher Charles Moore confirmed the existence of a garbage patch in the North Pacific after returning home through the North Pacific Gyre after competing in the Transpac sailing race. Moore contacted oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer who dubbed the region “the Eastern Garbage Patch” (EGP).

Twice the size of Texas

The Eastern Garbage Patch is located roughly 135° to 155°W and 35° to 42°N between Hawaii and mainland USA and is estimated to have grown to twice the size of Texas, even though no one knows for sure exactly how large the littered area really is. The garbage patch consists mainly of suspended plastic products that, after spending a long time in the ocean being broken down by the sun’s rays, have disintegrated into fragments so miniscule that most of the patch cannot be detected using satellite imaging.

Impact on wild-life and humans

The plastic soup resembles a congregation of zooplankton and is therefore devoured by animals that feed on zooplankton, such as jellyfish. The plastics will then commence their journey through the food chain until they end up in the stomachs of larger animals, such as sea turtles and marine birds. When ingested, plastic fragments can choke the unfortunate animal or block its digestive tract.

Plastics are not only dangerous in themselves, they are also known to absorb pollutants from the water, including DDT, PCB and PAHs, which can lead to acute poisoning or disrupt the hormonal system of animals that ingest them. This is naturally bad news for anyone who likes to eat marine fish and other types of sea food.